Tangled Web UK Review September 1999
The Remorseful Day by
pbk out July 00
You have decided, as Conan Doyle once did before you, that you are not going to write another book featuring your immensely popular hero. Right, you say, Iíll put an end to his existence. Doyle did it by plunging Sherlock Holmes to the depths of the Reichenbach Falls clasping the evil Moriarty. But, if you're Colin Dexter, you must at once have realised that such a death would hardly fit in with the Morse persona you had created. No, Morse, the brain, must die in bed. But why? Old age is out: he was most recently seen as a serving police officer. But, wait, he was a serving police officer who drank more than he should and had already had a spell in hospital. So death by illness. Problem solved.
But in solving that problem Morse's creator set himself another, and for a novelist a more intractable one. How can you write a book that is going to end with the protagonist's death and make the whole work lead significantly up to that point? There may have been a way. But an alternative would be to make the book into a sort of valedictory portrait both of Morse and of his creator, and that his creator chose to do. He paints his own farewell portrait by providing, first, an ultra-typical Dexter plot cunningly tossing down red herrings all the way and at the end producing a decently astonishing murderer. He paints, too, by decorating the whole with plenty of Dexterian grammatical and syntactical traps plus dozens of learned allusions. One of the latter, I noted with glee having fallen in to many of the former, comes a bit unstuck: Anon didn't write that verse about 'What is this that roareth thus? Can it be a Motor Bus?; A.D. Godley did. But then I thought: can that be a double bluff!
Because bluff and double bluff and, for all I know, quintuple bluff, is what fires the Dexter engine, and what delights those of us with skill enough to follow him, if at a distance. And we delight, too, to unravel him when he ransacks, not the dictionary, but the capacious stores in his head to give us such expressions as transmensal exchanges (Come on, were you never started off in Latin with mensa, a table?) Or, yet better, vespertinal divertissements. No, my handy dictionary has nothing between vestment and Vest-pocket (Am.). One up to Dexter.
So, yes, he gives us a fine plot, and a sufficient story. But you can tell his interest in the latter is only slight. Why else does he interrupt the necessary flow to give us, for instance, a car number set out in a box like this [R456 LJB]. Sorry, I'm not computerwise enough to put the top on that box. But I must admit I find it irritating, together with such things as scrawled messages elaborately laid-out in mock typewriter print.
Yet, despite such unnovelistic tricks the book is full of good things. We get a final portrait of the great Morse, a neat combination in fact of both the great Morses, the one in the thirteen books and the rather different one we see on television. And if the loving portrait eventually shows up the curious split at the heart of its subject, the gap between the insisted-upon 'extraordinary brain' and the fact that the man possessing it goes astray and astray before he comes to the final solution, why, that for a crime-writing aficionado is more than a little interesting. So, farewell, old Morse. We shall not see your like again.
- 1996 Cartier Diamond Dagger winner & creator of Inspector Ghote)